Potter Valley Fire: The Hornet’s Nest
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Ranch Fire and River Fire made up the Potter Valley Fire that blazed through the Mendocino, Glenn, Colusa and Lake Counties. Ranch Fire went on to become the largest single wildfire incident in California’s recorded history. It took almost three months for firefighters to contain the Mendocino Complex Fire fully from July 27 to September 18.
What Started the Fire
The Potter Valley Fire, aka Mendocino Complex fire, was ignited in the most unusual and seemingly harmless way when a Potter Valley Rancher tried to plug the opening of an underground yellow jacket nest. According to reports, the rancher was trying to build a shade for his water tank when he accidentally agitated the nest. When the swarm stopped, the rancher tried to plug the opening by hammering a 24-inch concrete stake into it using a claw hammer. This caused the spark that ignited a waist-high cured brush nearby.
Despite the rancher’s several attempts to put out the fire, which included smothering it with dirt and pouring water on it, the fire spread out of control. The mix of dry air, high temperatures and the abundance of cured grassland for fuel, similar to the Nurse Fire outbreak, overwhelmed the efforts of the rancher to extinguish the fire.
One hour after the rancher called in to report what will be Ranch Fire, River Fire, and the Potter Valley Fire.
How the Mendocino Complex Fire Progressed
Although firefighters were dispatched to the site of the fire immediately, gusty winds, high heat, and the area’s rugged terrain stymied their attempts to slow down the spread of the two wildfires, which caused the injury to several firefighters overnight. By the next day, the two wildfires were organized as the Mendocino Complex Fire. The complex fire has grown from 5,000 acres to 80,000 acres on July 31.
By August 7, the burn area of the combined wildfires grew to more than 220,000 acres. The wildfires, at this point, have either burned or damaged more than 220 structures. By August 12, firefighters were having more success at containing the much smaller River Fire reporting 93% containment. By the following day, the firefighters were finally able to achieve 100% containment of the River Fire with a burn area of more than 48,000 acres.
Ranch Fire, on the other hand, continued to blaze as firefighters managing to achieve only 63% containment by August 14. At this point, Ranch Fire’s burn area measured some 300,000 acres and will continue to burn on well into September. On September 19, the U.S. Forest Service finally declared the Ranch Fire and the Potter Valley Fire to be 100% contained.
The Potter Valley Fire left a burn area of nearly 460,000 acres, with Ranch Fire accounting for more than 400,000 acres of it. It destroyed more than 280 structures, 150 of which were homes. Despite its size, the fire caused only $267 million in damages, which is significantly smaller than other wildfires that hit California in 2018. CAL FIRE determined that the cause of the Potter Valley Fire was accidental and no charges were filed against the Potter Valley rancher who set off the largest complex wildfire in the state’s history.